Planning a Charity Auction: A Beginner’s Guide

Erin Cusack
Posted on July 21, 2016 by Erin Cusack in Fundraising and Grants.
Planning a Charity Auction- A Beginner’s Guide

Updated January 2019

Charity auctions are a fun and exciting way to engage donors and raise money for your mission. Yet a successful auction requires careful planning. What type of auction will work best for you? Should you hold an online auction or a live event? How much will it cost, and where do you get the items to auction? This guide will help you lay the plans for an unforgettable event that meets your fundraising goals.

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1. Decide which type of auction to host.

Table arrangements and five course meals. Bid paddles. An auctioneer rapidly calling out dollar amounts. These images are probably some of the first that come to mind when people think of charity auctions. But while live auctions are certainly a popular option, they’re just one of the many types of charity auctions that organizations can host. Thus, the first step to planning a charity auction will be to decide on exactly which type of auction your organization should put on in the first place.

The most popular types of charity auctions are silent auctions, live auctions, and online auctions. 

Silent auctions: These are in-person events where items are placed on tables for guests to browse. Traditionally, guests will bid by writing an amount on a sheet of paper placed next to the item. Mobile bidding software can boost donations by letting guests bid conveniently from their smartphones. Silent auctions are less structured than live auctions, giving organizations an ideal opportunity to interact with donors in person. Because silent auctions are more casual, they’re also suitable for many types of audiences and can be adapted to all types of settings. However, this less structured nature can be a double-edged sword. Since you won’t have an auctioneer running the show and actively entertaining your guests, it can be harder to engage your participants and motivate them to bid.

Live auctions: Live auctions are essentially a type of live performance. During a live auction, an auctioneer facilitates the bidding by introducing items and calling out dollar amounts. In order to place a bid, guests must capture the auctioneer’s attention either by using bid paddles or through some other method. Because you’ll have a real, larger-than-life auctioneer to run the show, live auctions tend to be fast, fun, and highly engaging for donors. Plus, the urgency of having to bid on the spot can be a great incentive for attendees to bid more! However, the structured nature of a live auction can also be a downside. Because guests will be seated at tables and participating in a live performance, your organization likely won’t have as much time to interact with donors. Live auctions are commonly paired with silent auctions to give organizations more opportunities to fundraise.

Online auctions: Online auctions are similar to silent auctions, only digital. To host an online auction, your organization would first have to set up an online auction site using auction software. The site features images and descriptions of each item for participants to browse on their computers. To place a bid, participants first have to register on the site by submitting their name and credit card information. Because there’s no physical event with an online auction, they’re much less expensive and easier to plan, and everyone can participate, regardless of geography. However, by the same token, it’s more difficult to engage donors with an online auction, and you won’t have the chance to interact with them face-to-face. That’s why online auctions are commonly held in tandem with silent auctions. Organizations can open online bidding prior to the actual event to allow more people to bid for longer, and thus, raise more funds!

While silent, live, and online auctions are the most common types of charity auctions, you can also opt to host something a little more unconventional, like a Chinese auction or penny social

Early in your planning process, be sure to check that your auction meets all regulatory requirements, including charitable solicitation registrations and charitable disclosure statements.

2. Set a budget and a goal.

Because charity auctions have so many moving parts, it’s important to budget carefully. You’ll want to anticipate all expenses from the beginning to make sure you can cover every aspect of your event, including auction software, items to auction, a venue, staff hours, decorations and supplies, entertainment, and food and drinks. Donations of time and materials can help cut down on costs.

Once you’ve established a budget, you can move on to setting a goal. How much do you hope to raise through your auction? Remember to keep your goal realistic and attainable. While it can be tempting to dream big, setting goals that are too lofty can demoralize your team.

3. Recruit a team.

Your charity auction will need staff and volunteers dedicated to the event, including:

  • An event planning committee.
  • A procurement committee to solicit auction items.
  • General volunteers for tasks such as set-up, registration, checkout, item running, and clean up.
  • For live auctions, an auctioneer in charge of running the bidding and auction spotters to scope out the audience for bids.
  • For silent auctions, an emcee to make announcements, talk up items, and keep the program on track, plus auction monitors to answer questions, encourage bidding, and make sure everyone is playing by the rules.

The makeup of your team will depend on the size and type of your charity auction. Just make sure you have enough hands to cover everything that needs to get done!

4. Solicit auction items.

When thinking about which items to solicit, you’ll probably want to start by consulting your donor data. The items that tend to do best will appeal to your attendees’ interests and fall within their general income levels. With these two factors in mind, have your procurement team start seeking out items as early as possible. They can start by leveraging their personal connections, then turn to other businesses and retailers who might be willing to donate their products or services, if necessary. Especially if you’re relying on volunteers, it can be helpful to equip your procurement team with a solicitation toolkit that includes all the materials they might need when asking for donations. Your toolkit might include:

  • Basic information about your organization, cause, and event
  • Donation pledge forms
  • Invitations to your auction
  • Solicitation letter templates

With a solicitation toolkit, your team will have everything they need to request and accept donations on the spot.

5. Set a date and book a venue.

With your procurement team on the ground scoping out items, it’s time for your event planning team to start organizing the other logistics related to your event. One of their first duties will be to set a date and book a venue. If possible, schedule your auction for a weekend or weeknight after 6 PM, so that those who work will be able to attend. Try to avoid holidays or summer months, when people are more likely to be traveling or tied up with family events.

About 9-6 months out from when you wish to host your event, start scoping out an event space. The actual date will be determined by when the venue is open, but booking the space early should give you plenty of flexibility. There is no shortage of excellent venues available for hosting charity auctions, from art museums and golf courses to auditoriums and community centers. Keep in mind, if you’re hosting a silent auction with mobile bidding, you’ll want to test out the wifi and cell service before you book the venue to make sure it can support your software.

6. Promote your auction.

Now that all of the details are in order, it’s time to share the news of your charity auction with your loyal supporters! While you’ll definitely want to advertise your auction through multiple channels, one of the most effective ways to promote your event is to set up an auction site. Generated through auction software, your auction site will be a website that includes all of the pertinent information about your event. Through your auction site, guests will be able to:

  • Learn about your organization and cause
  • Buy tickets and sponsorships
  • Browse images and descriptions of auction items, 
  • Check out your sponsors
  • Make donations
  • Bid on items in advance of your in-person event

Share the link to your auction site in all event correspondence to provide guests with all of the information they need to get involved. An auction site eliminates the need to print out a physical auction catalog to promote your items and allows you to continue adding new items as they come in.

7. Set up and execute your auction.

It’s the day of your charity auction, and all of the hard work you put into planning is about to pay off! The biggest task you’ll face the day of the auction is setup. You’ll want to have the necessary staff and volunteers on site well before the event is set to start, so you’ll have ample time to get everything done. Set up will look a little different depending on which type of auction you’re hosting.

For silent auctions:

  • Set up registration and checkout areas with multiple lines.
  • Arrange tables around the room in a way that facilitates good traffic flow.
  • Group items by category and place them on tables. Keep items to one row per table so that they’re easily visible to guests.
  • Place table tents next to each item that list the item number, a description of the item (including any restrictions), retail value, and starting and minimum bid amounts.
  • If using mobile bidding, make sure the wifi and cell service is good to go. If you’re hosting a traditional silent auction with bid sheets, generate the sheets and place one next to each item.

For live auctions:

  • Set up registration and checkout areas with multiple queues.
  • Arrange tables and chairs in the venue and place guests in a seating chart.
  • Place items in an area where they can easily be retrieved and displayed as the auctioneer introduces each one. If you can’t feature items in-person, you might consider setting up a projector screen to display images of each item.
  • Set up and test out the sound system.

Once setup is over, have volunteers ready and waiting to greet guests and register them as they start arriving. Then, let the bidding ensue! Most importantly, remember to have a good time. While it’s all too easy to worry about the details, when guests see you and your team enjoying the event, they’re sure to follow suit.

Bonus: Want to raise even more at your charity auction? Check out these fundraising event planning tips from our friends at Neon!

8. Thank contributors and track your performance.

The winners have been determined, the happy guests have walked home with their items, and the venue is all cleaned up. However, you’re not quite done with your charity auction just yet. A stellar event warrants a stellar follow-up, and that means thanking those who contributed and tracking your performance. Make sure to follow up with everyone who contributed to your auction promptly after the event. Many of your contributors are also item donors, volunteers, sponsors, and bidders. All of your supporters deserve to be thanked, no matter how big or small their contributions.

You’ll also want to track your own performance, especially if you plan on hosting another auction in the future. If you used auction software to plan your event, evaluating your performance should be fairly straightforward. Since all item and bidder data is tracked in one platform, you’ll be able to generate a variety of highly accurate and up-to-date reports that will give you insights into which aspects of your planning worked well and which left some room for improvement. Your auctions will only keep getting more popular and profitable!

While charity auctions require a lot of planning and forethought, they can be some of the most lucrative nonprofit fundraising events. To learn even more about running a charity auction, make sure to check out this guide from OneCause.

Karrie Wozniak is an expert on mobile fundraising. She is Vice President of Sales & Marketing at OneCause (formerly BidPal), the leading mobile fundraising software company that helps nonprofits engage more donors and raise more money. Since 2007, OneCause has helped thousands of organizations raise more than $1.5 billion and connect with over 1.5 million supporters.

Make Sure Your Auction Meets Requirements

Auctions, like all types of fundraisers, trigger complex regulatory requirements. If you want to make sure you’re following all the rules without spending a ton of time on government paperwork, Harbor Compliance can help. Just get in touch or give us a call, 1-888-995-5895. Our nonprofit specialists will be glad to take care of all the details for you.

Read More:

Learn about other fundraising activities that can trigger special requirements.
Six things to do once your nonprofit has registered for fundraising.
Nine ways compliance affects your mission and impact.


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